Reviews in The Economist, Slate and the Times

This week’s issue of The Economist has a review of my book and Lee Smolin’s, entitled All Strung Up. It’s quite positive about the point of view on string theory that Smolin and I share, and correctly identifies where we see things differently about the role of mathematics. Nothing in it that will be news to readers of this blog.

Yesterday I also saw two reviews that I don’t think much of. The first is Gregg Easterbrook’s piece at Slate, The Trouble With String Theory. It’s a very enthusiastic review of Smolin’s book, and when I started reading it my initial reaction was positive, although it did seem a bit over the top. As I read on, besides wondering “Hey, is he going to mention my book too?”, I started to remember who Easterbrook is, and how stupid some of his previous writings on physics were. By the end of it, I was very glad Easterbrook had left me out of it. One sometimes depressing aspect of being on this side of the string theory controversy is seeing who some of one’s allies are.

Easterbrook is best known as a sports writer writing about the NFL, but for some reason various prominent publications feature his writing on other topics. The biggest mystery of all is why places like Slate and the New Republic have him writing about science, a topic he seems to know nothing about, and be actively hostile to. For once, Lubos Motl’s paranoid rantings about “anti-science” people who dislike string theory do actually have someone they legitimately apply to. This latest Easterbrook effort isn’t even original, he’s plagiarizing himself, writing:

Today if a professor at Princeton claims there are 11 unobservable dimensions about which he can speak with great confidence despite an utter lack of supporting evidence, that professor is praised for incredible sophistication. If another person in the same place asserted there exists one unobservable dimension, the plane of the spirit, he would be hooted down as a superstitious crank.

which isn’t very different than what he was writing in the New Republic three years ago:

Ten unobservable dimensions, an infinite number of invisible parallel universes–hey, why not?

Yet if at Yale, Princeton, Stanford, or top schools, you proposed that there exists just one unobservable dimension–the plane of the spirit–and that it is real despite our inability to sense it directly, you’d be laughed out of the room.

The second new review that I don’t think much of is one that I got a copy of late last night (after a party held to celebrate the US publication of my book). It will appear this Sunday in the New York Times Book Review and is the first really hostile review of the book by a science writer that I’ve seen. I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by how positive the reviews of the book have been so far, since I initially expected much more of a mix of sympathetic and hostile ones. Most science journalists have seen years and years of string theory hype go by, with no progress towards any of the promises made for the theory ever actually being fulfilled, and this has left them with a more and more skeptical attitude towards the theory. The Times reviewer, Tom Siegfried, most recently wrote a book entitled Strange Matters: Undiscovered Ideas at the Frontiers of Space and Time, and somewhat earlier a book called The Bit and the Pendulum: From Quantum Computing to M-theory. Both books feature a breathless, gee-whiz, completely credulous take on the most speculative ideas around, thoroughly mixing science fiction and fact, with little interest in distinguishing the two. At the time I was writing my book, ones like Siegfried’s were models for me of the opposite of what I was trying to do, so I’m not surprised he didn’t much like what I wrote.

Unlike most authors who don’t have any viable way of responding to reviews they consider unfair and misleading, it’s all too easy for me to do so here, so a response to the review follows.

Siegfried complains that I use technical jargon, for example by discussing “perturbation expansions”. While there are certainly places in the book that have some technical material in them that most people would be best advised to skip over, this isn’t one of them. To understand anything at all about the current state of string theory, you need to have some idea about what a perturbation expansion is. This is carefully explained at one point in the book. It’s not clear to me what Siegfried’s point is. Does he not know what a perturbation expansion is? If so he shouldn’t be writing or reviewing books on this subject. Does he think that the audience for this kind of book is not capable of following such an explanation? If so, he has a profound lack of respect for the people who read these books. As far as I can tell, they cover a very wide range of backgrounds, but most of them have had a good high school or college education, and many have taken a calculus class where they have been exposed to power series expansions, and I explicitly refer to this in my explanation.

One can write a book like this by refusing to try and explain anything that can’t be explained to someone with only a grade school education, but that’s not what I was doing. I don’t think you can honestly communicate much about the current state of particle theory and string theory if you follow this tactic. My decision was to first see which topics I wanted to try and write about, then do my best to give an honest explanation in the simplest and clearest terms that I could manage. Some topics end up being pretty accessible to everyone, others do require significant background to understand and appreciate. I think most readers of the book will learn some things from it, while not understanding everything. But they won’t go away from the book being fooled into thinking they understand something that they don’t.

Siegfried’s review is unremittingly hostile, with virtually everything he has to say about what is in the book a misleading and less than accurate characterization. According to him I allege that people only do string theory because Witten has “mesmerized” them, mainly use quotes that reflect what people thought 20 years ago, engage in irrelevancies about masturbation, etc. This last has to do with a quote from Gell-Mann (He used to say, “physics is to mathematics as sex is to masturbation”, changed his mind after 1984) that I discuss because it reflects well the attitudes of particle theorists towards mathematics, and the relation between the two subjects is one of the central concerns of the book. This discussion may be tasteless, but it is not at all irrelevant to what I was writing about.

Siegfried claims that my central accusation is that string theory makes no predictions and that I am flat-out wrong about this. He writes:

…string theory does make predictions — the existence of new supersymmetry particles, for instance, and extra dimensions of space beyond the familiar three of ordinary experience. These predictions are testable: evidence for both could be produced at the Large Hadron Collider, which is scheduled to begin operating next year near Geneva. These predictions are not of the specific quantitative kind that would definitively prove string theory true or false, but their confirmation would certainly be taken as impressive support.

The fact of the matter is that string theory makes none of the “predictions” Siegfried has been led to believe by the hype about string theory that he seems to have swallowed whole. It predicts nothing about what extra dimensions might be visible at the LHC, not even their number. Similarly, it does not predict that superpartners will be visible at the LHC or what their properties will be. His use of the term “supersymmetry particles” indicates how little familiarity he has with the subject, while still feeling quite comfortable accusing me of getting this all wrong.

Siegfried is rather more kind to Smolin’s book, but also manages to mischaracterize it, insisting that Smolin is not content with favorable evidence for string theory, but is demanding some much higher standard of definitive proof. He ends by comparing both of us unfavorably to Schwarz and other 1970s string theorists, noting that they didn’t complain about the dominant research program in particle theory during their day. The problem with this argument is that the dominant research program was gauge theory and the standard model which, very much unlike string theory, had a huge and increasing amount of experimental evidence backing it up. If it hadn’t had this, I strongly suspect that Schwarz and many others would have also been complaining, loudly.

Update: There’s a short, but very well-done, review of the book in today’s Guardian. Also a mention in the Toronto Star, where science journalist Jay Ingram describes how:

A few years ago, the occasional physicist would confide in me that string theory — the idea that matter is composed of super-tiny vibrating strings — would one day be seen to be wrong, a big mistake.

Update: The review in the Times is here.

Update: The Boston Globe has a quite positive review of my book and Smolin’s here.

Update:  More coverage of this in USA Today.  This piece includes a quote from John Schwarz that experiments will verify string theory in the future, and implies this will happen at the LHC. Lubos has his trademark insightful commentary.

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81 Responses to Reviews in The Economist, Slate and the Times

  1. andy says:

    Does Tom Siegfried have any science education? I mean, is he confusing himself as a science journalist with an actual scientist?

  2. optimist says:

    Hello, Dr. Woit,

    This is my first time to leave some message here. Although I strongly agree with your critics about superstring theory I would be rather optimistic in different direction.

    These days I am studying AdS/CFT to learn AdS/QCD which is interesting topic these days. In doing these I realized that AdS/CFT did give theoretic predictions which were not clear from field theory sides. Even though they are just theoretical consistency I think they give very good reason to study string theory.

    Maybe understaning quantum gravity is too early for us but thanks to string theory it could be true that we happen to have unexpected tools to investigate nonpertavative regime of gauge theory.

    If people insist that they are doing “theory of everything” with accepting anthropic approach then you can criticize them and I agree you. If people see string theory as a tool for a strongly coupled guage theory then I think you should be encourge them to do it especially if they are fresh graduate students. Understanding strongly coupled guage theory is very important and useful thing, I think. Too critical mood could be harmful even to this kind of important research.

    Thanks.

  3. Who says:

    Peter, just for reference here is a link
    to a free copy of the 11 August Science magazine article by Tom Siegfried you mentioned in an earlier post.

    http://susy06.physics.uci.edu/press/susy06_science_naturalness.pdf

    He was covering the SUSY 06 conference and called the piece “A Landscape Too Far?” IIRC you gave a link to the subscribers-only version of the article but not to this copy at the official conference website.

    Readers may remember the article has a special sidebox where Joe Polchinski recounts how he used to be skeptical of the Landscape but then “got religion”.

    This article shows something of how Siegfried works as a science journalist. He is evidently on chummy terms with many eminent string people and chats easily with them—obtaining seemingly valuable spontaneous quotes that enable him to tell their story in a personalized “insider” way.

    I am not approving or disapproving—especially since I havent seen his NYTBR piece about the two books. I merely remark that Siegfried is a sympathetic trusted insider science journalist who could be effective as informal spokesperson for the string community.

    He must have a fair amount invested in his access to and relation with important stringfolk. Should be an excellent person to voice the community’s interests, rebut it critics, and tell its story to the public.

    Here is the KITP bio
    http://www.kitp.ucsb.edu/community/ITPBios/Siegfried.html
    His MA in journalism at U Tex Austin had a Physics minor.
    This is in answer to andy’s question about science education.

  4. Thomas Love says:

    Finally finished reading NEW over lunch today. While I agree with you about the errors of string theory, there is quite a bit I disagree with you on, especially the correctness of the standard model.

    As you discovered, “The enemy of your enemy is not necessarily your friend.”

    Now on to Smolin’s book!

  5. Hi Peter,

    this continuing claim that string theory predicts supersymmetry and large extra dimensions, which the LHC will be able to find, reminds me of the following sentence from Kathy Mansfield’s “The Fly”: “we cling to our last pleasures as the tree clings to its last leaves”.

    I think the tree will be bare soon – Give the LHC a couple of years.

    Cheers,
    T.

  6. PPCook says:

    Hi Peter,

    “Physics is to math what sex is to masturbation.”

    I thought this excellent quote was due to Feynman.

    Best wishes,
    Paul

  7. woit says:

    Who,

    The first entry for “Tom Siegfried” under Google is his listing as a journalism fellow at the KITP in Santa Barbara. I guess that’s where he learned about “supersymmetry particles” and all the string theory predictions for the LHC.

    PPCook,

    Gell-Mann does explicitly claim priority on this, although many internet sources list Feynman. It is only one of many discoveries the two of them have fought over credit for…

    optimist,

    I agree with you that AdS/QCD is interesting and that string theory is a promising approach to studying strongly coupled gauge theories. But I don’t think there’s the slightest danger that too few theorists are working on this subject.

  8. Carl says:

    Siegrfried complaining about talk of arcana such as “perturbations” misses the point. When one of my relatives asked for a recommendation, I sent them to Smolin’s book because it is written for a more general audience (and will probably sell a lot more copies).

  9. Peter,

    I think that if evidence for a sparticle was found at the LHC a lot of people, myself included, would count it as suggestive of the value string theory. Lubos is apparently confident enough of SUSY at the LHC that he has put a dime ($1000) on it. At least he puts his money where his mouth is!

    Ditto if evidence for any extra dimensions, never mind how many or what size is found.

    Either of these discoveries ought to point the way to new physics, but string theory would be an obvious first resort.

    I’m jus sayin…

  10. Dan says:

    CapitalistImperialistPig I agree with what you say, if LHC finds either SUSY or extra dimensions then interest in string theory will continue to mount, and other approaches will either dry up or attempt to merge with string theory.

    However, what-if,
    what if LHC finds neither the higgs boson nor SUSY nor higher dimensions? What would happen to physics and string theory?

    My prediction:

    Non-SUSY 4D LQG will continue to languish, and interest in String theory will continue unabated.

  11. A says:

    if SUSY is there, LHC would see some new hadrons, new leptons, new higgses, but telling if they are SUSY would be difficult. E.g. LHC can measure some of their masses, but SUSY does not predict any mass. SUSY predicts couplings, telling that sparticles decays are too fast to be measured.

    About extra dimensions at LHC: Dorigo could bet 100000$ against them, and likely no physicists would accept the bet. Extra dimensions are considered too unlikely.

  12. Nathan Myers says:

    Who really believes Lubos would pay if LHC results came out against him? If you do, offer to hold the money in escrow, before the experiment is performed, and see what happens.

  13. gambler says:

    Dudes,

    Betting is *the* way to measure how firmly somebody is convinced of something. Not long ago in England people would talk about those who lacked the “courage of their convictions”, where “conviction” is what you have if you’re convinced of something.

    Is there a web site where people can place wagers about things like sparticles? String theorists and string-theory critics could each make a lot of money, and humiliate their enemies, if only they’re right. Although, maybe the string theorists would chicken out because maybe string theory is right even though supersymmetry will never be seen. Maybe string theory is wrong even if the sparticles are found, but I don’t think so …. supersymmetry is one thing as a mathematical feature of a qft; it’s quite another thing to say that it’s a part of “the universe”; the second statement is a religious one, part of the same religion as strng theory.

    Nathan is right, though. Escrow is what we need, and a Trusted Third Party. There might be legal problems if it’s in the United States, but there are places in Europe and maybe in Vegas where it should be legal. I think this is something to push for – raise the stakes and then raise them further – checking for susy at LHC is the closest thing to a test of string theory we’ll see in our lifetimes. Let’s make it as spectacular as possible. After LHC, we’ll all be fired anyway.

  14. Go to http://www.ideosphere.com (unfortunately, it doesn’t let you bet with real money)

    Robin Hanson is a major proponent of betting on scientific questions, and has lots of writings and links on the subject.

  15. PPCook says:

    Hi Peter,

    Thanks for the information about the quotation. I didn’t realise they also disputed quotations.

    Best wishes,
    Paul

  16. A,

    I don’t know how firm the evidence is on this, but my understanding is that the lightest supersymmetric partner is supposed to be stable, as it must be if it is to account for, say, dark matter. No such discovery would “prove” string theory, but it would be a potent clue that ought to lead somewhere – maybe even to ST, which is the first place everyone would look.

    Betting may give us insight in to peoples strength of conviction, but it doesn’t give any into their soundness of judgement! Out of respect for Peter’s policies I will avoid mentioning any of the examples that occur to me.

  17. Gina says:

    A week ago I wrote, especially for this blog, a critical pre-review of Peters book “not even wrong”. Among other things, it contained a clever analogy between string theory as a theory of everything and mathematical logic which is the mathematical theory of everything and a critical assessment of Peter’s ideas on sociology and funding of science ending with the strong statement: “As there is no such thing as a riskless risk, Woit’s ideas on this front may deserve the title ‘not even wrong'”.

    I explained why, in my opinion, Peter does not really have a “case” against string theory.

    Since the pre-review was not ready in time to be included in the comments following the post I aimed at (one categorized by “not even wrong – the book”), I posted it in a later and unrelated post. There it lasted 5-6 hours before being deleted. It was read by at least two people (or entities), the “renormalizer” who suggested to delete it and Peter who deleted it. In spite of its short time under the sun I was satisfied with my effort and outcome, but in a world where some are trying to find an ever-lasting theory of everything which will reduce later physics to just filling the details, and a few are trying to prove that two decades of efforts of thousands string theorists amount to zero if not less, my short lived pre-review cannot be considered as highly ambitious nor as a success.

    I thought of resubmitting my clever yet ill-fated pre-review, but now, my mood is different. Rather than reviewing the matter at hand let me make a few remarks how can, in my humble opinion, the overall nice book by Peter (after all it is justa book not a “case”), be made nicer.

    Most of the chapters of the book are very good. I think this is a very good popularization of particle physics all the way to the “standard model”. Popularization of science is a tricky business and deserves a whole separate discussion. There is no way to avoid some “cheating” but one should still try to be honest, useful and non-manipulative and Peter does a good job. The description of the connections with mathematics are especially good. The story about the Seiberg-Witten discovery is told very vividly. With the exception of too strong rhetorics most chapters on string theory are also well-written. I am learning a lot reading the book. Thank you, Peter!

    What could make this book nicer?: I can see the temptation to include the Bogdanov brothers story (and to mention the (overplayed) Sokel’s hoax), and Peter had a personal record to set for this case. But overall this story does not belong to this book. The story about the string theory guy who became a Maharishi scientist also does not belong here. The same goes for the refereeing process for Cambridge University Press. I have quite a few scientists friends, and complaining about referee reports is one of the few drawbacks in their sweet lives. Beside, they are the referees themselves! (and they also complain about the burden of refereeing.) The rhetorics against string theory, and string theorists, as Peter himself noted (p.225, l. -5) is indeed too strong. This does not add to but rather reduce the value of the book.

    The concluding chapter starts with a beautiful quote from Bob Dylan’s song “Absolutely sweet Marie” – “But to live outside the law, you must be honest”. When I saw it I thought that this is a self reference and that Peter set a standard for himself: If you want single handedly, coming from the outside, to claim that one of the hottest scientific area of our time failed and the efforts of thousands of string theorists worthless, you better be honest about the details, presentation and even your own motives.(And overall Peter is indeed quite honest.) Peter’s intention quoting Dylan was different as he referred not to himself but to string theorists — that without empirical support to their theory should be honest. It is good to remember that nobody is or can be completely honest. So in view of Dylan’s quote, the laws and traditions of conducting science as well as debating science are better respected.

    And Dylan’s cryptic line from “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” also comes to mind:
    ” There’s no success like failure, and failure’s no success at all.”

  18. TheGraduate says:

    Gina:

    I was another entity that read your review. I think it contained a mistake of perspective that I think is also contained in your current post. In both, you consider Peter’s book a popularization of string theory. As far as I understand Peter’s intentions, it is not. It is an argument against string theory being the “only game in town”.

    On a side note, why do you keep saying how clever your review was?

  19. Peter Woit says:

    CIP,
    One can certainly reasonably claim that the discovery of supersymmetry at the LHC would provide some encouragement to the research direction that has led people to superstring theory, but that’s a far cry from claiming that superstring theory “predicts” that evidence for supersymmetry will be found at the LHC. As for superstring theory “predicting” that the LHC will see evidence for extra dimensions, that’s just complete nonsense. Some of the fanatics like Jacques and Lubos are willing to put some money down on supersymmetry at the LHC (it will be interesting to see if they pay off), but I don’t know anyone willing to put money down on the LHC seeing extra dimensions.

    Gina,

    Your earlier comment was deleted because you posted it in a completely inappropriate place. As for this one, obviously I disagree with you about the relevance of some chapters in the book to my argument. In particular, the refereeing story at Cambridge was a very unusual one, involving two referees who strongly backed publication, and two string theory partisans trying (successfully) to stop Cambridge from publishing the book, while lacking any arguments against its content. Given that one of the main reactions from string theorists to the book has been that “string theory has won legitimately in the marketplace of ideas”, I think it is important to explain how this marketplace sometimes operates.

    I should perhaps have made more explicit what I meant to convey with the Dylan quote. It’s not specifically about me or about string theorists, but about the situation particle physics finds itself in. Lacking the discipline enforced by experiment, theorists now need to be a lot more self-critical and honest in evaluating the results of the speculative work they are engaged in.

  20. John A says:

    One sometimes depressing aspect of being on this side of the string theory controversy is seeing who some of one’s allies are.

    It’s not just a problem in theoretical physics 🙁

  21. John A says:

    The only big result I expect to see from the LHC is conformation of the Higgs Boson. Anything else is a bonus.

  22. A says:

    CIP: one difficulty in distinguishing supersymmetry from alternative theories, is that almost all of them have a stable neutral particle, because all theorists want to explain dark matter. “Dark matter at LHC” is the safest bet. If dark matter will be found, understanding why it is stable might lead to fundamental progress.

  23. Gina says:

    TheGraduate said: “I was another entity that read your review. I think it contained a mistake of perspective that I think is also contained in your current post. In both, you consider Peter’s book a popularization of string theory. As far as I understand Peter’s intentions, it is not. It is an argument against string theory being the ‘only game in town’ “.

    The Graduate: I think I was quite accurate. The first half of the book is indeed a popularization of particle physics all the way to the “standard model”. The second part contains a popularization of string theory plus an argument against it. This argument refers to string theory “stand alone” as well as to the aspect of string theory being “the only game in town”.

    Peter: My main (mild) critique of today was not about irrelevancy but that the items I mentioned (and a few others) reduce the quality of your book. Of course, a book may have many qualities and I am mainly referring to the quality of the book as a serious discussion and debate of science (of the kind appropriate to a university press). For example, if you refer to the string theory community as a “mafia” this statement is, of course, highly relevant, but making such a statement reduce the value of the book, at least in my opinion. I think you are wrong to consider your experience with Cambridge university press as very unusual. Many authors had similar experiences even with much less controversial (and more important) books and papers. (This is an empirical issue that, in principle, can be tested.)

    I think the story of the Maharishi string theorist is irrelevant. You do discuss a little in a straight way the comparison between string theory and the occult. This is fine. But on top of it you add further insinuations and stories towards such a comparison and, again, this reduce the quality of your book. Overall, it is a nice aspect of your book that you are not “part of the story” and the few places where you add yourself to the story, e.g., the Bogdanov e-mail, seem somewhat artificial.

    “… theorists now need to be a lot more self-critical and honest”

    Yeah, we all need to.

  24. D R Lunsford says:

    It’s a shame the Times has fallen so far as to not be able to field a single good science writer (Overbye included). Are there any good science writers?

    -drl

  25. TheGraduate says:

    Gina,

    I haven’t read the book yet so my objection was a limited one. I just thought that you were critiquing a book that Peter didn’t write. I know it’s not the book he intended to write BUT I do not know for sure it is NOT the book he wrote. Unless, it was stated in the preface, introduction and on the dust jacket that it wasn’t a popularization, I think it is perhaps a fair assumption that the average reader would consider any review of particle physics contained within the book as a popularization.

    Hopefully if the book makes it to second edition, all the stuff that people are pointing out are things that are going to go into the book. It does appear from the objections I’ve seen people making that the book needs a little more framing so people know why certain things have been included.

    I think in the pantheon of string theory books, it is obviously to be read after some of the others. It really makes no sense to read ‘Not Even Wrong’ if there had never been any such books as “The Elegant Universe” and “The Fabric of the Cosmos”.

  26. Chris Oakley says:

    TheGraduate says:

    I think in the pantheon of string theory books, it is obviously to be read after some of the others. It really makes no sense to read ‘Not Even Wrong’ if there had never been any such books as “The Elegant Universe” and “The Fabric of the Cosmos”.

    The purpose of Not Even Wrong is to point out that something (string theory) commonly regarded as a success is actually, as a scientific theory, a failure. Popular books on the subject, such as Greene’s, are only one aspect of this.

  27. woit says:

    Gina and the Graduate,

    I did not refer to string theorists in the book as a “mafia”, I said that some of the people who wrote to me did so. It is a fact that many people in the physics community feel this way and I was reporting this. It’s not a word I would use to describe my own perception of string theorist’s behavior.

    All the things that Gina objects to are things that I was reporting that are factually accurate. I didn’t do much “framing” because I think the world is a very complex place, and there are many possible lessons to be learned from phenomena like Hagelin, the Bogdanovs, or my experiences with Cambridge. I explained a bit about some of the lessons that I personally drew from these stories, but everyone can make up his or her own mind. Aaron Bergman felt that I was making unspoken implications, but that’s really not the case. If I have something critical to say about anyone, I say it explicitly and clearly.

    At various times while writing the book I thought that I should shade what I was saying to make it more palatable to others, for instance to ensure that referees would agree to let me publish it. In the end I decided this was a bad idea, that I should put down on paper exactly what I thought. For better or worse, that’s what’s in the book. It is in no way at all a political document.

  28. TheGraduate says:

    Peter,

    Thanks for the clarification.

  29. Garrett says:

    I recently bet two young string theorists that superparticles wouldn’t be found by the LHC.

    The more reasonable of the two thought the odds would be around 50%, because much recent theory involves supersymmetry breaking at an inaccessible energy scale. So it looks (from an unenlightened viewpoint) like string theorists are aware of the threat to their models imposed by the LHC and are back peddling further away from prediction of observables superparticles.

    I encourage others to take up bets like this one. Understanding and, consequently, prediction is what physics is supposed to be about. And bets are fun.

  30. dan says:

    Dear Peter,
    It seems clear that should LHC find any SUSY, it will be a big boost for string theory, but if LHC does NOT find SUSY, do you think interest in string theory will wane, or do you think it will continue unabated?

    Curious
    Dan

  31. A says:

    let me try to answer to dan: if LHC finds nothing new, somebody will try the string-anthropic landscape, but bigger changes will happen: somebody will leave the field, somebody will move to neutrinos, cosmology, astropysics, most collider experimentalists will shift to astroparticles, laboratories such as CERN could survive studying neutrinos or flavor.

    We do not need bets to make LHC results interesting.

  32. Garrett says:

    I’d like to see an interesting Higgs sector.
    (But, err, this is getting off topic.)

  33. Thomas Larsson says:

    It seems clear that should LHC find any SUSY, it will be a big boost for string theory, but if LHC does NOT find SUSY, do you think interest in string theory will wane, or do you think it will continue unabated?

    Dan, you have sort of given the answer yourself: Strings should continue to funded & research, at least at present levels if not more, should LHC discover evidence of SUSY particles or extradimensions or both. — obviously, should LHC fail to find such particles then the answer would be no..

  34. Speaking about bets : surely no one would accept to play a game where, if X happen you lose 1 $ and if X does not happen you don’t gain anything. This is precisely the sort of game that some string theorists would like others to play : if susy or extra dim are seen at LHC, string theory wins, and other theories lose, but if they are not seen string theory doesn’t lose and others do not win ! One can certainly conjecture about loss or gain of confidence, but since there is no quantitative prediction of the needed energy level to see such phenomena, this won’t come any close to a Popperian falsification procedure.

  35. dan says:

    Hi THomas,
    I was wondering if Peter agreed with what I thought — and what should happen and what Peter thinks might happen are two seperate issues, I think what SHOULD happen is that not finding SUSY at LHC SHOULD be grounds for decline interest in strings. Whether that does happen, given the dominance of string theory in academia seems unlikely.

  36. Gina says:

    Peter,

    It is a crucial quality for a book to reflect the author’s thoughts and point of view so in this respect I do not have any argument with your choices on what to include in the book, even if my taste is different.

    I think that the parts of the book with non technical explanations of physics and mathematics related to the standard model and further to string theory are very good and could serve as platforms for several alternative books. It could have been (and still can be) a good platform for a scholarly discussion and critical evaluation of string theory from the point of view of history, philosophy and sociology of science which would be suitable for a university press publication.

    The path that you took makes the book perfectly appealing for a commercial publisher but indeed not appropriate for a university press publication. Part of it is the rhetoric and selection of issues to discuss, and part of it is the clarity and strength of your overall argument.

    Concerning the small issue of using the word “mafia”. Indeed it is a quote from somebody else, but the discussion in the following sentences gives the impression that you endorse what is behind this term if not the term itself. This I find unfortunate.

  37. dan says:

    Hello A,
    Given the cost of LHC, somwhere north of $8 Billion US $, if LHC does not find nontrivial new physics, it’s hard to imagine the urge to build even more expensive colliders. In the US, the SCSC was cancelled. I do wonder, if the only new physics LHC discovers is the higgs boson, at a price tag of $8 billion, I cannot imagine that even more expensive particle accelerators will be built to achieve higher luminosities. (If LHC sees lots of new interesting and nontrivial physics, then I could see the push to build even larger, more expensive particle accelerators).

    As you suggest, a null result would probably result in the shift might be to astrophysical particles and neutrinos. In the event of a null result, what I would like to see is particle physics taking non-SUSY, non-string approaches, such as preon theories.

    For me, a null result would be strong experimental support for Woit’s NEW thesis, that string theory is probably the wrong approach, and is taking resources away from perhaps more promosing approach. There are theoretical problems with SUSY-MSSM, and should LHC not detect SUSY, I think continued dominance of string theory at the expense of alternative approaches would be experimenally unjustified.

  38. woit says:

    dan,

    I’m not very good at prediction of what will happen to string theory. Personally, several years ago I would never have predicted that serious scientists would keep working on string theory after they accepted the existence of the landscape.

    My best guess is that string theorists will keep doing string theory no matter what unless another bandwagon starts up for them to join. This might come about because of an exciting unexpected LHC result, because Witten comes up with a promising non-string theory idea, or some other reason. If the LHC doesn’t turn up supersymmetry or extra dimensions (which I think is very likely), string theorists will concentrate more on black holes and cosmology (this has already been happening). As they do this, they’ll slowly lose the support of their colleagues in other physics subfields, their funding will get cut, and, to a large extent, they’ll take the whole field of theoretical particle physics slowly down with them.

  39. MoveOnOrStayBehind says:

    “As they do this, they’ll slowly lose the support of their colleagues in other physics subfields, their funding will get cut, and, to a large extent, they’ll take the whole field of theoretical particle physics slowly down with them.”

    That’s what you dream about, isn’t it. But dream on.

  40. woit says:

    MoveOn,

    No, it’s not my dream, quite the opposite. It’s just an extrapolation from what is already going on, which is sad and depressing to watch.

  41. Gina says:

    “My best guess is that string theorists will keep doing string theory no matter what unless another bandwagon starts up for them to join. This might come about because of an exciting unexpected LHC result, because Witten comes up with a promising non-string theory idea, or some other reason. If the LHC doesn’t turn up supersymmetry or extra dimensions (which I think is very likely), string theorists will concentrate more on black holes and cosmology (this has already been happening). As they do this, they’ll slowly lose the support of their colleagues in other physics subfields, their funding will get cut, and, to a large extent, they’ll take the whole field of theoretical particle physics slowly down with them.”

    This is an excellent generic guess for any prominent theory:

    My best guess is that X-theorists will keep doing X-theory no matter what unless another bandwagon starts up for them to join. This might come about because of an exciting unexpected EMPIRICAL result, because some prominent X-theorists comes up with a promising non X-theory idea, or some other reason.

    If the EMPIRICAL support (or another exciting thing) doesn’t turn up (which I think is very likely), X- theorists will concentrate more on possible application to theory Y (this has already been happening). As they do this, they’ll slowly lose the support of their colleagues in other subfields of their sup-sup field , their funding will get cut, and, to a large extent, they’ll take the whole sup-field slowly down with them.

  42. woit says:

    Gina,

    Yes, but in the generic case, a real possiblity is that “X-theory will achieve one or more of its major goals, making it a solid and permanent part of science, opening up new areas to work on that build on this success”. That’s not at all in the cards in this case…

  43. Dan says:

    Since thus far there is no experimental support for proton decay, a generic feature of all known GUT models, do you think theoretical particle physics has been dragged down by GUT hopes?

    Curious
    Dan

  44. woit says:

    Dan,

    Lee Smolin has an interesting anecdote about a discussion with Eddie Farhi, who told him he left particle physics after proton decay predicted by GUTs was not observed, figuring there was no way to get experimental info about unification, thus one shouldn’t work on it.

    Supersymmetry GUTs push the lifetime up, but even they may be in trouble with experiment soon.

    Personally, GUTs always bothered me, because they don’t solve the main problem of the standard model, the Higgs sector, just making it worse by having to introduce more Higgs fields to break the GUT symmetry. They do have some interesting features, e.g. all particles fitting into one SO(10) rep, and coupling constant near unification, but I think one definitely needs some quite different ideas to make anything like a GUT really work out.

  45. Renormalized says:

    Gina- Do you always just regurgitate what others have written? I can’t see you are adding anything to any discussion you have been involved with. Your responses are more in line with a common online troll.

  46. Dan says:

    Dear Peter,

    Thanks for responding. Sounds like Eddie Farh had the right idea. In someways GUT’s foreshadow strings.

    “Supersymmetry GUTs push the lifetime up, but even they may be in trouble with experiment soon.”

    Kamiokande proton decay and LHC together can give four scenarios regarding SUSY and GUT and string theory.

    Obviously, the experimental scenario that would most favor your NEW would be LHC fails to find SUSY, proton decay is not observed and rules out all SUSY-GUT’s at 99.7% confidence. You and Smolin would be “heros”, although I’m unsure whether string theory will continue its dominance in academia.

    If Kamiokande failure to proton decay rules out even SUSY-GUT’s, would that be enough to falisfy the string theory unification project?

    It would be pretty exciting if LHC discovers SUSY, but Kamiokande rules out all forms of SUSY-GUT (as the proton does not decay), or Kamiokande discovers proton decay consistent with SUSY-GUT, but LHC fails to discover SUSY.

    If LHC discovers SUSY and Kamiokande discovers proton decay consistent with SUSY-GUT predicted proton lifetimes, string theory will continue its dominance as SUSY-GUT can be embedded in the string framework. Lubos and Jaques believe this will be an outcome, Lubos is willing to bet money, and I think if it is the outcome, I think their confidence in strings will have some experimental support.

    In this scenario, I can’t imagine either your NEW or Smolin’s Trouble gaining any traction whatsoever.

  47. Yatima says:

    Dan says:

    > You (Woit) and Smolin would be “heros”

    Why should that be so? A hearty expression of frustration that turns out to be justified when the brick wall is finally reached does not a ‘hero’ make – and I do not think it is the authors’ intention to acceed to hero status. ‘Hero’ would be the research group that comes up with the Next Good Thing, whatever that is.

    > I think if it (SUSY + proton decay consistent with GUT) is the outcome, I think their confidence in strings will have some experimental support.

    Hmm… how much experimental support would that actually be (I am unable to judge this). If you succeed in circumnavigating the earth, your conjecture that the earth is round, hollow and has big holes at the poles has some experimental support, but you still need to check those poles. Now if these are too difficult to reach, what then?

    Btw. are preons still being worked on?

  48. jeremy says:

    Yatima write:

    “Why should that be so? A hearty expression of frustration that turns out to be justified when the brick wall is finally reached does not a ‘hero’ make – and I do not think it is the authors’ intention to acceed to hero status. ‘Hero’ would be the research group that comes up with the Next Good Thing, whatever that is.”

    To express such frustration so publicly, to challenge the status quo so vigorously, and to argue for alternatives so heartily is courageous and heroic. Who knows, the hero “that comes up with the Next Good Thing” may only become hero after being inspired by NEW.

  49. LDM says:

    Regarding the Siegfried review…it is pretty obvious he doesn’t really understand what he is writing about…which I find irresponsible, since he must certainly realize that some people might make a decision to purchase or not based on his review.

    But I suppose it is a two-edged sword, since I now would never consider buying or even recommend to anyone his upcoming book…

  50. Gina says:

    “That’s not at all in the cards in this case…”

    Wow, so you have them cards, Peter! Boy, we have a lot of questions to ask you…

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